Arment Dietrich

Crisis Communications: How Chick-fil-A Weathered the Storm

By: Arment Dietrich | December 19, 2013 | 
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Crisis Communications- How Chick-fil-A Weathered the StormBy Clay Morgan

When it comes to crisis communications, there is nothing better than being prepared.

Despite it’s recent bad publicity, Chick-fil-A may have proven itself to be one of the most prepared companies out there.

In the summer of 2012, Dan Cathy, CEO of the fast-food chicken restaurant chain, expressed his support of the biblical definition of marriage (and opposition to gay marriage) on a conservative radio talk show and in a religious publication.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Cathy tweeted his disappointment in the high court’s ruling.

Gay rights groups also pointed out the company financially supported organizations that stood against gay marriage. Protests were organized and the onslaught began.

The Enduring Company

There were efforts, a couple of them successful, to remove Chick-fil-A from college campuses. There were protests, rallies, and picketers. Social media exploded in an unrelenting attack on the restaurant chain.

But here’s the thing: In the midst of it all, the restaurant chain grew.

QSR Magazine, a trade publication serving the fast food industry, announced in its August 2013 edition that in 2012, Chick-fil-A rose to the number nine spot in revenue among fast food restaurants.

It surpassed KFC (with only one-third the number of locations) to become the best-selling chicken restaurant in the country, finishing at $4.62 billion in total revenue, an increase from the previous year’s $4.1 billion.

As a Christian-based company, they are closed on Sundays. Still, the average Chick-fil-A restaurant had greater sales in six days than most McDonald’s restaurants had in seven days during 2012.

It makes you wonder if there was a crisis…or if the crisis communications team just managed it expertly.

The Basics

One of the key things about Chick-fil-A is their reputation, one I think is demonstrated by my own personal experiences.

I like the food. When I was working at the newspaper, I’d visit the restaurant a couple times a week. The food quality is consistent, no matter which location you visit.

But there’s something else. Their customer service, in my opinion, far exceeds any other fast food restaurant. They greet you warmly. They thank you for your order and the ‘thanks!’ sounds genuine. And then there are two other simple words. In a video interview, Dan Cathy told the interviewer there is a 87 percent chance that if you say “thank you” to an associate, the response will be “my pleasure.” There’s something special about those words.

The restaurants overall are clean and the tables have fresh flowers. The staff checks on you – It is almost like being at a high-end restaurant. When I visit a Chick-fil-A, I feel like the staff wants to serve me and wants me to have a pleasant experience. I can’t always say that for other more popular fast-food restaurants.

Other Activists

When Cathy made his controversial marriage statements, gay-rights activists planned boycotts. Students voted to remove Chick-fil-A from campuses. But they weren’t the only ones who entered the fray.

Brand supporters, including conservatives and Christian groups, organized an appreciation day. According to ABC News, as many as 605,000 people may have participated in the appreciation day. Estimates are that the average restaurant experienced a 29 percent increase in same-day sales.

Their supporters were vocal. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and others spoke out in support of the chain during the controversy. Even the American Civil Liberties Union and Mike Bloomberg, while not endorsing Cathy’s comments, did defend his right to say them.

Crisis Communications: What Can We Learn?

The Chick-fil-A crisis communications plan started long before the controversy ever erupted and didn’t look like a plan most of us would develop.

Here is what we can learn:

  1. Have company values. Chick-fil-A has a strong set of company values that range from traditional faith to firm ideas about customer service. Not everyone agrees with them, but a lot of people strongly identify with them, which increases their loyalty to the brand.
  2. Give your clients and customers a tremendous experience. This is customer service at its core. As a Chick-fil-A customer, they exceed my expectations every, single time I go in to the restaurant. It is ingrained into the very culture of the company and should be in yours too. Customers treated exceptionally well are far more likely to weather a storm with you.
  3. Cultivate brand ambassadors with influencers. As soon as the controversy erupted, conservative leaders such as Mike Huckabee, Ann Coulter, Rick Santorum, and Sarah Palin rushed to the company’s defense. Regardless of politics, they have a lot of influence over very large populations, and they had a lot to do with the hugely successful appreciation day.

Engage

A little talk can go a long way. Cathy engaged his accusers. He made some changes in the company’s giving, but he also talked to those who had a problem with his statements.

In particular, ABC News reported the CEO and Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, engaged in conversations at the height of the controversy. Windmeyer expressed that the two have become friends, despite their opposing views on gay marriage.

They may not be changing each other’s minds, but they seem, based on comments in the article, to understand one another.

While the company did engage a crisis communications plan in the traditional sense, it was what they did before, as part of their basic culture, that made the difference when the chicken coop got kicked.

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